ISSN 1108-8931

INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MONTHLY

Year 5-Issue 52, Sep 2003

ECO FOCUS

In this issue Sir Patrick Fairweather* writes on the prospects for Ecotourism in Albania


The Baptistery in Butrint, 6th c. AD 


Albania did not share in the rapid growth in tourism that other countries in Eastern Europe experienced following the end of Communism in eastern Europe. Political instability and trouble in the region, particularly in Kosovo, encouraged the perception that Albania was a difficult if not dangerous destination. This perception is no longer justified and it is time to look at what Albania has to offer the tourist.

These things are subjective but for this writer the main attractions are the coastline from Vlore south to the Greek border; splendid archaeological sites, particularly Butrint, which remains for the time being Albania's only World Heritage Site; noble late Ottoman towns such as Gjirokastra and Berati; and the traditional villages, often set in rugged mountain scenery, in which you can enjoy the harmony of stone built houses in their landscape and the simple but genuine pleasures of eating in Albania - yoghurt, honey, incomparable bread and eggs from chickens which enjoy a freedom which their British counterparts lost years ago.

The coast from Vlore southwards is probably the longest stretch of unspoilt coastline on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. From Vlore the road climbs up through an almost Scottish landscape of bracken, rushing streams and bare rocks to the Llogorase Pass from which there are magnificent views down to the unspoilt beaches of the Ionian, of the mountains to the east, and of Corfu in the far distance. Once off the pass, the road is slow but such is the beauty of the countryside that the three-four hour journey to Saranda is an unforgettable experience. Take time out to visit some of the villages (see below). Do not miss a visit to Ali Pasha's fort at Porto Palermo in a bay which it shares with a James Bondian submarine pen dug into the cliff - a relic of the Albanian Communist regime's paranoia. Buy honey from the old lady who, when I went through, had about 150 hives beside the road.

Butrint is the best-known and most accessible of Albania's numerous archaeological sites. There are day trips from Corfu to Saranda, the nearest port. The archaeology of Butrint, which is being excavated by a mixed British and Albanian team, is exceptionally interesting but what gives Butrint its special character is the beauty of its setting. The view from the Acropolis in the late afternoon with the sun going down behind Corfu is unbeatable.

The Ottoman fortress town of Gjirokastra is an hour's drive inland from Saranda. The old town is built high on the hills on the west side of the Drinos Valley and is dominated by the great walls of its 13th century castle. The town is best explored on foot. Its maze of patterned cobbled streets reveal gems of Ottoman architecture and vignettes of Gjirokastran life at every turn. The castle is well worth a visit but it is the impressive fortified houses of the town, most dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, which justify the detour. Most of these have colourfully frescoed interiors, cupboards and screens. The owners of the Zekate house, which is one of the finest examples, are happy to show visitors around. Several have been turned into bed and breakfasts. If you want something more formal, you can stay in Hotel Kalemi.

Albania is magnificent country for walkers, particularly those with an adventurous disposition. Until the collapse of Communism, almost two-thirds of the Albanian population lived in the countryside and despite emigration, most of the villages continue to be inhabited. Away from the coastal plains, mechanisation is a rarity and the villages are nearly self-sufficient in food and drink. One of the pleasures of visiting them is to see the various seasonal activities - cheese-making, distilling raki, spinning wool or weaving carpets.

As yet village tourism has only really taken off along the coast between Vlore and Saranda. The villages of Borsh, Queparo and Himara, offer accommodation of a reasonable standard. From these villages it is possible, with the help of a guide, to trek inland.

The first steps are being taken to promote tourism in Albania. One or two specialist travel companies in Britain are now organising week-long tours. But Albania is not yet a "sanitised" destination. The infrastructure remains poor. Except on the major roads, journeys can take a long time. Accommodation may sometimes be more primitive than western tourists are accustomed to. In many respects conditions are similar to those which existed in Greece off the Athens - Argolid - Delphi circuit forty years ago.

But if Albania does not always enjoy the conveniences of early 21st century life, it has also been spared many of the ravages of the last half-century. It is this and the extraordinary natural beauty of much of the country which gives Albania its special flavour.

Practical details

Journey times (by road) (approximately)
Tirana - Vlore 2 hrs 30 mins
Tirana - Gjirokastra 4 hrs 30 mins
Tirana - Saranda 5 hrs 30 mins

There are three ferries daily from Corfu to Saranda (2 conventional, 1hr 30 mins; 1 hydrofoil, 40 mins.) Single fare €15. An entry visa costs €10. Rooms at the up-market Butrint Hotel in Saranda cost from €90. Acceptable alternatives are available from €35.

There is no self-drive car in Saranda. Taxis are readily available and reasonably cheap. It is possible to negotiate a day rate. There are 5 travel agencies in Saranda. Try Terini Travel on +355 852 5033 or email Terini@albmail.com

Guide books

The best modern guide to Albania is "The Blue Guide" by James Pettifer. The Butrint Foundation has published "BUTRINT: A Guide to the City and its Monuments". The cost is £8.00.

About the Author

*Sir Patrick Fairweather is the Director of Butrint Foundation, also see Interview in this issue

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